A Chinese city near the border with North Korea has held an air raid drill amid tensions over Pyongyang’s latest threats, according to media reports.
The official China News Service said today that authorities in Huichen, a city of 250,000 people in Jilin province, sounded alarms in residential areas yesterday morning.
It quoted the leader of the exercise, Xu Helin, as saying the city plans a series of drills to boost residents’ “disaster response abilities”.
Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV cited unidentified government sources as saying the drill was previously scheduled and was not a response to current tensions.
North Korea has warned of a possible nuclear war and said it has weapons “on standby” if provoked.
Meanwhile, US secretary of state John Kerry and his South Korean counterpart have said that North Korea will gain nothing by threatening tests of its missile or nuclear programmes.
Mr Kerry said the US and its Asian ally will not accept the North as a nuclear power, adding that its rhetoric is “unacceptable”.
Mr Kerry is making his first-ever visit to Seoul amid strong suspicion that North Korea may soon test a mid-range missile.
South Korean foreign minister Yun Byung-se called Pyongyang’s threats a “grave provocation” to the entire international community.
Mr Kerry is in South Korea at the start of four days of talks in East Asia. He also plans to visit China and Japan.
Speaking at a press conference with Mr Kerry, Mr Yun called Pyongyang's threats a ``grave provocation'' to the entire international community.
North Korea often times its provocations to generate maximum attention, and Mr Kerry’s presence in Seoul will provide plenty of that, even if the US is engaged in intense diplomacy with China, the North’s benefactor, in an effort to lower tensions.
Another key date on the calendar is April 15, the 101st birthday of North Korea’s deceased founder, Kim Il Sung.
Mr Kerry’s trip coincides with the disclosure of a new US intelligence report that concludes North Korea has advanced its nuclear know-how to the point that it could arm a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead.
The analysis, disclosed yesterday at a congressional hearing in Washington DC, said the US Pentagon’s intelligence wing has “moderate confidence” that North Korea has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles but that the weapon would be unreliable.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said afterwards that “it would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully tested, developed or demonstrated the kinds of nuclear capabilities referenced” at the congressional hearing.
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said he concurred with Mr Little and noted that the report alluded to at the hearing was compiled by the Pentagon’s Defence Intelligence Agency and was not an assessment by the entire US intelligence community. “Moreover, North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile,” he said.
President Barack Obama yesterday urged calm, calling on Pyongyang to end its saber-rattling while sternly warning that he would “take all necessary steps” to protect American citizens.
Mr Kerry’s trip marks his first foray to the Asia-Pacific as America’s top diplomat, spearheading the effort to “pivot” US power away from Europe and the Middle East and towards the world’s most populous region and fulcrum of economic growth.
It comes on the heels of months of provocative action and warlike rhetoric from Pyongyang, including talk of nuclear strikes against the US – however outlandish analysts consider such threats. No one is discounting the danger entirely after tests of a nuclear device and ballistic missile technology in recent months.
Mr Kerry’s trip was planned well in advance of the latest danger to destabilise the Korean peninsula: North Korea’s apparent preparations for another missile test in defiance of United Nations resolutions. The crisis clearly has overtaken the rest of his Asian agenda.
The Obama administration believes North Korea is preparing for another missile test, said a senior US State Department official travelling with Mr Kerry. “We will show to our allies that we are prepared and we will defend them,” the official said.
To mitigate the threat, however, Kerry is largely depending on China to take a bigger role in pressuring North Korea to live up to previous agreements to halt its nuclear and ballistic missile programme. It is a strategy that has worked poorly for the US for more than two decades.
Beijing has the most leverage with Pyongyang. It has massively boosted trade with its communist neighbour and maintains close military ties. And the US believes the Chinese could take several specific steps to show North Korea it cannot threaten regional stability with impunity.
These include getting China to cut off support for North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction programme, said US officials, though they rejected that the US was seeking a commercial embargo against the North.
Officials could not say, however, whether Pyongyang under its enigmatic young leader, Kim Jong Un, was actually listening at this point. One of them stressed that he “wouldn’t say there is no conversation between them”, but declined to describe the level and impact of Chinese-North Korean contacts.
Kim’s actual control of the country also is unclear, the official added. Now 29 or 30, the basketball devotee and product of a Swiss boarding school inherited power from his late father, Kim Jong Il, some 16 months ago and has seemed to lead his country on an increasingly reckless path toward possible confrontation.
That has led many observers and policymakers abroad to devote increasing time toward analysing what little information they have on Kim to figure out how he can be mollified without being rewarded.
Pyongyang has conducted three nuclear tests and shown it can launch a three-stage missile. But a senior US military official in South Korea said it was “premature” to believe North Korea can develop a warhead, launch it, have it re-enter the atmosphere and then actually target something.
Putting a miniaturised nuclear weapon on a warhead is a “very difficult task”, said the official.